How To Prevent Unauthorized Changes to Your Flight

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Airline tickets aren’t nearly as secure as you may have thought. Picture this — you spend months searching for the perfect award itinerary, making tweaks as better options open up along the way. You pack, head to the airport, post a picture of your fancy first-class boarding pass in the lounge, scan your pass to get on the plane and you get a red light, only to learn that you entire itinerary has been cancelled.

That’s right — that boarding pass you posted on Instagram had your full name and confirmation number, which is all someone up to no good would need to change or cancel your flight by calling the airline or even visiting the carrier’s website. If you booked a flight on the airline’s own metal, an agent may be able to rebuild your itinerary, but if you’ve booked a partner award and availability has disappeared, you’re out of luck.

If your confirmation number is compromised, it's far too easy for a stranger to change your plans.
If your confirmation number is compromised, it’s far too easy for a stranger to change your plans.

With a recent United award, I was a bit paranoid that a stranger would make changes to my trip — one that I had spent nearly a year planning, with dozens of changes and a handful of flights on partner airlines. If this had happened before the trip began, I would have stayed at home to work out an alternative, but if the change had been made while I was connecting in Seoul or Bangkok, it could have been a huge inconvenience.

Fortunately, some airlines make it possible to add a “code word” to your itinerary that agents will ask you for whenever you need to make a change. I reached out to a few airlines on Twitter, asking “Is it possible to ‘lock’ a reservation to prevent someone from calling in to make a change without permission, if they somehow got a hold of my PNR?” Here’s how they responded:

American Airlines

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I didn’t have any AA, JetBlue or Southwest flights to try this out with, but I did give it a whirl on a recent United award booking. Once the Twitter rep added a “code word” to the notes in my reservation, I was prompted for that word every time I called in about that particular reservation — United’s phone reps clearly read the reservation notes as soon as they pull up your itinerary.

During one of the calls I wasn’t prompted for the code word, however, so unfortunately this isn’t a guarantee. Additionally, a code word or reservation note won’t preclude someone from making changes to your itinerary online, so keep that in mind as well.

Share a picture of the cabin — not your boarding pass!
Share a picture of the cabin — not your boarding pass!

If you want to guarantee that your reservation won’t be compromised, be sure to take the following steps:

  1. Ask the airline to add a note to your reservation as a precaution.
  2. Never share your confirmation number with anyone but an airline employee. If you forward an itinerary to colleagues or friends, remove the confirmation number before you do so.
  3. Don’t post your boarding pass on social media — you’ll be handing over all of the information a stranger would need to change or cancel your ticket, and they’ll also have access to the rest of your itinerary details, including your frequent flyer number, the amount you paid for the ticket and even the last four digits of your credit card number.

It’s entirely possible to stay “safe” when traveling, and to ensure the security of your flight and hotel bookings. The simplest precaution you can take is to not share a photo of your boarding pass — you’d be surprised at how often this happens, and it’s far too easy for someone on the other end to completely screw up your plans.

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